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How To Be A Helper For A Child Whose Family Is Touched By Addiction


Mr. Rogers used to say that when he was a boy and he was scared by something, his mother would tell him, look for the helpers. He said he kept that in mind in times of disaster. More than 8 million children in the U.S. live in families touched by addiction. So if you're a teacher, a coach or just a neighbor and you want to be their helper, what do you do? Kavitha Cardoza has some tips from NPR's Life Kit podcast.

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: When Michael was 9, he got into trouble a lot. We're using middle names for privacy. He was angry because his dad never spent any time with him. He was either working or dealing with Michael's brother, who was struggling with addiction.

MICHAEL: I would slam the door. Sometimes I would hit my head on the wall and then walking out of class and just not being able to control how I felt. Teachers thought, oh, it's just a bad kid.

CARDOZA: One day, Miss Missy, a counselor at his school, started talking to him, just stuff like, what do you like doing? Those conversations continued for two years. He says if Miss Missy hadn't come along, he might have continued to believe he was a bad kid and never taken advanced classes or finished school. In fact, being a caring adult, a helper in a child's life, can be a lifeline. But don't pry or put down their parents because that can push children away. They love their parents. In fact, Mary Beth Collins with the National Association for Children of Addiction says it's actually helpful to teach them the parent and the addiction is not the same.

MARY BETH COLLINS: Help children separate the addiction that they struggle with, that they hate, that they're so angry at, from the parent that they love.

CARDOZA: Also, tell them it's not their fault. When Isabel was little, her mother struggled with addiction. Isabel was convinced she was the reason.

ISABEL: I think it was just because, you know, one day, I was seeing my mom, you know, every week. And then all of a sudden, I didn't see her for months. And so, you know, you think to yourself, I did the wrong thing. I must've upset her somehow.

CARDOZA: Both Isabel and Michael attended Eluna camps that work with children of addiction. Here's a camp counselor singing something called the Seven C's.

UNIDENTIFIED CAMP COUNSELOR: (Signing) And I didn't cause it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) I didn't cause it.

UNIDENTIFIED CAMP COUNSELOR: (Singing) And I can't control it.

CLAUDIA BLACK: I didn't cause it. I can't cure it. I can't control it.

CARDOZA: That's Claudia Black, an expert on addiction who helped start these camps.

BLACK: But I can now help take care of myself by - another C here - communicating my feelings and then - another C here - by making healthy choices and celebrating me.

CARDOZA: Mary Beth Collins says the verse is easy to remember and it helps.

COLLINS: It gives them the basic rules that allow them to stop feeling like they are in control of the addiction. And instead, it puts the focus back on themselves.

CARDOZA: After several years, Isabel had an aha moment about her mom.

ISABEL: I kind of just realized that it was a disease and that it's really not up to me if she wants to get help. It's ultimately up to her.

CARDOZA: Another thing you can do is support a child's developing interests. Go for a hike. Bake a cake. Kick around a ball. Lastly, let kids be kids because when a parent is struggling with addiction, children often take on a lot of grown-up responsibilities - cooking, cleaning, looking after younger siblings. And so anytime these children aren't expected to be little adults, it's healing.



CARDOZA: These are children who have had an intense weekend at an Eluna camp sharing very painful stories. But now it's time for a party, complete with s'mores and a DJ. They can just be silly.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Let it go. Let it go.

CARDOZA: For NPR News, I'm Kavitha Cardoza.

CORNISH: And NPR's Life Kit has more tips at npr.org/lifekit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kavitha Cardoza
[Copyright 2024 NPR]